The Visegrád All Stars
(European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Exchange Square, London, 25th September 2013. Review by Andy Boeckstaens)
‘The Visegrad Group’ is an alliance of four Eastern European countries – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – which has existed since 1991 – in essence to promote political, economic and cultural co-operation in Central Europe and beyond. The Visegrad All Stars, consisting of one musician from each of the countries, plus the British trumpeter Steve Fishwick was formed specially for this occasion.
This concert, instigated by the Hungarian Cultural Centre and presented in partnership with the Czech Centre, the Embassy of the Slovak Republic and the Polish Cultural Institute was arranged to mark the Hungarian presidency of the Visegrád Group.
The five musicians were invited to play at the London headquarters of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Initially it was planned for each participant to contribute an original composition. That would have been interesting, but – perhaps mindful of the non-specialist audience – the quintet opted to play a handful of overdone jazz standards.
Budapest-born piano legend Béla Szakcsi Lakatos – who has just turned 70 – began the performance unaccompanied, before Stella By Starlight emerged. Repeating a formula that continued through every piece except the encore, On Green Dolphin Street (by Polish composer Bronislaw Kaper) started with a long, intricate bass solo by Robert Balzar from the Czech Republic. The crystal clear trumpet of the UK’s representative Steve Fishwick prefaced My Funny Valentine.
Although many of these musicians were acquainted with each other, this was the first time that they have all played together. Much of the material was delivered with that slightly uncomfortable politeness that so often plagues “all-star” groups, but the quality of the musicianship leaves a more lasting memory. The majestic tenor sax of Maciej Sikała from Gdansk signalled a fine What Is This Thing Called Love? and that segued into Bye Bye Blackbird, which began with a quiet and skilful solo by 16-year-old Slovak drummer David Hodek. Just as the group got into its stride, though, it was time to finish. Before 8.30!
Thankfully, an encore ensued and Things Ain’t What They Used To Be was the most exciting piece of the evening. Sikała produced another substantial solo, then Lakatos stepped beyond the prevalent American style with a dark, rumbling creation that owed much to the European classical tradition, and he made it swing like mad.
It was particularly good to hear the highly experienced and accomplished Maciej Sikała – who was playing in the UK for the first time – and Robert Balzar, remembered for his work in London with John Abercrombie a few years ago. At this gig, these musicians had few opportunities to show their individualism, but the organisers should be congratulated for bringing the Visegrád All Stars together for a truly unique event.
Béla Szakcsi Lakatos – piano
Maciej Sikała – tenor saxophone
Steve Fishwick – trumpet
Robert Balzar – bass
David Hodek – drums
Stella By Starlight (Victor Young)
On Green Dolphin Street (Bronislaw Kaper)
My Funny Valentine (Richard Rodgers)
What Is This Thing Called Love? (Cole Porter)
Bye Bye Blackbird (Ray Henderson)
Things Ain’t What They Used To Be (Mercer Ellington)